Robert Wyatt: Cuckoo in the nest

Idiosyncratic and eccentric, Robert Wyatt's unique musical style is consistently lauded by both critics and musicians. Andy Gill talks to him ahead of the release of his new CD, Cuckooland
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The Independent Culture

Robert Wyatt exhales another lungful of smoke, draws another swig of coffee and gazes wistfully out over the Thames from the balcony of the Royal Festival Hall. "It's a great wheel-along, this whole South Bank," he muses appreciatively. Later on, if he has the time, he may roll his wheelchair along to the Globe, or maybe Tate Modern. On the other hand, he may just grab a bite to eat from one of London's countless varieties of ethnic cuisine, a treat he rarely gets to experience in the small Lincolnshire town in which he lives.

"That's what I love about London. It reminds me of Noah's Ark," he enthuses. "You can get a taste of everything here." Wyatt and his wife, Alfie - the painter Alfreda Benge, who does the covers of his albums and co-writes much of their contents - left London for Lincolnshire a long time ago, when their Twickenham neighbourhood began showing dismaying signs of gentrification. But they love coming back to the capital and being reinvigorated by the city's vibrant, cosmopolitan culture. "We're both still Londoners at heart," Wyatt admits, "and when there's something like the Countryside March going on, we definitely feel as though we're stuck behind enemy lines."

They're currently in London to promote Wyatt's new album, Cuckooland, which arrives, according to his customarily relaxed schedule, some six years after its most recent predecessor, the lovely Shleep. It's another typically absorbing, idiosyncratic affair, full of gentle drones and genial jazz, deceptive melodies and humanist sentiments whose murmured delivery belies the intensity with which they're held. There's a loose theme of rootlessness, refugees and "old world" values (just about) holding it all together.

"I don't do deliberately thematic records," he says. "I don't think about what I'm doing at all. But if there's any coherence about how and what you think, and you stick to that, your preoccupations will resonate and it will automatically become coherent. As far as Alfie and I are concerned, the most interesting and poignant situation in the world today is rootlessness, and the endless love-hate thing between settlers and nomads that history has been full of. Our tendency is to empathise with the nomads, who are often demonised."

For Benge, the empathy is rooted in her own experience as an immigrant child in England after the war.

"I think Alfie deliberately sets out to write about alienation," Wyatt believes. "Her life story has fine-tuned her to it, and she instinctively has sympathy with whoever the enemy is meant to be at any time, having been the enemy herself as a little girl with a foreign accent, treated like shit until she learnt to speak with an English accent. Luckily, she learnt to speak like a native!"

Hence their "Lullaby for Hamza", written for a baby born in Baghdad on the day the bombs began falling on the city during the first Gulf war, now having to face further bombing raids as a child. "I was a child in Europe during the war," explains Alfie, "and I had nightmares for years after about the air-raids."

Hence, too, the song "Forest", about the continuing plight of gypsies, once condemned to Nazi death camps, and now condemned to seek asylum in an unwelcoming UK. Hence, also, "Cuckoo Madame", which was inspired by Alfie's observation of the much-maligned bird going about its business near the couple's beach-hut.

"We live near the coast, near Spurn Point, and you get a lot of migrant birds, such as swallows and swifts, most of which travel in gangs," Wyatt explains. "But cuckoos spend their entire lives, apart from when they mate, alone. This is blatant anthropomorphism, of course, but cuckoos never actually see their parents, or their children. They travel to Africa alone, with no one to guide them. Alfie thought that maybe they didn't want to leave the baby, but had to go, that there were forces that had to be obeyed that we don't understand - and that it was an incredibly poignant lifestyle. As a lifelong alien, she always looks out for outsiders and empathises with them, anybody that's called 'witch' or whatever."

Balancing these contemplations of the more negative aspects of exile is "Old Europe" - named in parody of Donald Rumsfeld's condescending dismissal of European misgivings over Bush's oil war - which recalls the time when black American jazz musicians found Paris and Stockholm far more amenable and respectful places to live than their own homeland.

"The French, and Europeans in general, nurtured bruised and under-appreciated American artists - not just black musicians, but painters and poets - throughout the 20th century," affirms Wyatt. "They took American culture a lot more seriously than America did, at the time - the first really good jazz films, for instance, were done by French directors. I had a piece of music influenced by French film music, and gave it to Alfie, who knows I sit around in my dream world of mid-to-late Fifties Paris, and she wrote 'Old Europe' for that."

The song is one of several featuring the British-Israeli reed-man Gilad Atzmon, whose sax and clarinet stylings furnish the album with another unifying element.

"I was a Gilad Atzmon groupie for a while. I just found his clarinet playing so soulful," says Wyatt. "He's done all the jazz history, but he's also really got into Turkish and Arabic music, which has given his playing a different, bluesy element. There's such wit and intelligence to his work. For instance, when we were doing 'Old Europe', he said, 'OK, so you want a kind of late-Forties tenor thing', and started playing like that, but towards the end shaded into a Fifties thing - he was able to fine tune it, he knew exactly what the song was about.

"I think the Jewish contribution to jazz is probably overlooked," Wyatt continues. "It's not just George Gershwin, who wrote all the chord-changes that everybody played in bebop, but involves that whole East European way of playing. If you listen to early jazz, the clarinet playing is as close to klezmer as anything. Really, they shade into each other."

Other musicians guesting on Cuckooland include old friends and collaborators like Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Karen Mantler, Annie Whitehead and Dave Gilmour ("if rich people were all like him, there'd never be the need for a revolution anywhere!"), though the most important, Wyatt asserts, were Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, who loaned his home studio, and engineer Jamie Johnson, who brought a level of technical expertise way beyond the capabilities of Wyatt, who still has no computer. Instead, he noodles away at rhythms and melodies back in Lincolnshire, records them to DAT, and relies on Johnson to integrate them into a more secure sonic framework. The track "Trickle Down", for instance, derives from something Wyatt recorded 10 years ago.

"I was going through a period where I was enjoying playing just cymbals," he explains, "trying to play along with Billy Higgins on old jazz records - karaoke drumming! - then when the record stopped, I kept going and switched the tape recorder on. It's a wonderful feeling that there's still something of the drums that I can get a grip on. [Wyatt was a noted drummer before his 1973 accident] I really got into just time-keeping, doing it with both hands, and I really liked the effect of them being slightly out of sync. Then I put a few McCoy Tyner piano chords on it to mark out its territory, took that into the studio, and it became 'Trickle Down'."

For all his love of jazz and the more outré of musical forms, however, Wyatt has no pretensions about his own place in the musical firmament. Amidst the album's more challenging tracks sits a charming, diffident solo piano rendition of "Raining In My Heart", which anchors not just the higher aspirations of the tracks around it, but Wyatt's own self-image too. "It's a reminder to myself that, after all, what I do is really only old pop music," he says, "and that I'm not actually Michael Nyman, or Ornette Coleman - that I come from pop songs; technically, that's as advanced as I am. And it's also a reminder that music doesn't really get any better than Buddy Holly. When I was working it out as a sort of piano parlour piece, it struck me that it sounded like an old 19th century hymn. So instead of modernising it, I made the Buddy Holly version sound like a modern version of mine."

'Cuckooland' is released on Hannibal Records on 29 September

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